News / Middle East

In Yemen, Women Take One Step Forward, Two Back

A woman takes part in a march demanding the resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Sanaa, September 26, 2011.
A woman takes part in a march demanding the resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Sanaa, September 26, 2011.
A halting and sometimes violent transfer of governing power is under way in Yemen and if the transition goes smoothly, one of the biggest beneficiaries could be the nation’s women.

When protests rocked the capital Sana’a last year, part of uprisings across the Arab world, tens of thousands of women were prominent among the demonstrators, many taking a leading role.

Yemen’s president at the time, Ali Abdullah Saleh, responded by appealing to religious sensitivities, accusing the women of “un-Islamic” behavior.

Saleh is out of office now, forced to turn over power to Vice President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi this past February. But Yemen’s women are still demonstrating, still pressing for their rights and arguing that their cause is fully compatible with Islam.

Yemen Uprising Photo Gallery

  • January 2011: Yemeni women hold placards and a photograph of activist Tawakkul Karman during an anti-government rally in Sanaa. Placards read in Arabic, "Arresting Karman is an unethical incident against Yemeni Women."
  • February 18, 2011: Supporters of the Yemeni government hurl stones at anti-government demonstrators, not pictured, during clashes in Sanaa on what organizers called Friday of Rage.
  • March 10, 2011: Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh speaks to supporters during a gathering in Sanaa.
  • April 5, 2011: Anti-government protestors carry a wounded man during clashes with Yemeni forces in Taiz.
  • May 27, 2011: Women shout slogans during an anti-government rally against Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Sanaa.
  • June 25, 2011: Yemeni women, wearing headbands that read in Arabic, "Housewives," participate in a demonstration in Sanaa, demanding the resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Women have been fighting to keep a voice for their rights sound
  • July 17, 2011: Female anti-government protestors display their hands with Arabic markings telling President President Ali Abdullah Saleh and his supporters to step down, during a demonstration in Sanaa.
  • August 12, 2011: A female anti-government demonstrator holds a placard demanding the prosecution of Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Sanaa.
  • September 19, 2011: Yemeni Anti-government protestors carry Hassan Wadaf, a cameraman wounded in clashes with security forces. Several people were killed in recent days as snipers picked off protesters from rooftops  in Sanaa.
  • October 7, 2011: Yemeni activist Tawakkul Karman, next to husband, Mohammed Esmaeel al-Nehmy (R), speaks to journalists in Sanaa after the announcement that she had won the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize with  Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Lib
  • October 26, 2011:  Yemeni women protestors burn veils during a demonstration in Sanaa, in a symbolic act meant to attract attention to recent crackdowns by government forces against the popular uprising.
  • November 23, 2011: Photo released by Saudi Press Agency shows Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh signing an agreement to step down, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
  • December 10, 2011: Nobel Peace Prize winners Tawakkol Karman of Yemen, (C) and Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee (R) receive their diplomas and medals from Nobel Committee Chairman Thorbjoern Jagland (L) at City Hall in Oslo, Norway.
  • January 30, 2012: Members of electoral sub-committees attend a training session in Sanaa. Yemen's outgoing president Ali Abdullah Saleh has handed over power to his deputy Abdrabu Mansur Hadi, paving the way for a presidential election on February 21.
  • February 21, 2012: Women queue at a polling station in Al Hasaba neighborhood in Sanaa to vote for a replacement for President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Vice President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi stands uncontested as a consensus candidate.

In the forefront of that struggle is Tawakul Karman, a charismatic journalist, politician and women’s rights activist who led many of the anti-government demonstrations last year and became the first Arab woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize.

“Islam, like other religions, is not in conflict with women’s rights, democracy or any human rights principles or values like equality, justice and dignity,” Karman said in a telephone interview. “These are the values of the divine faiths.”

Convictions like these may be difficult to promote in Yemen, a poor and deeply traditional society where women have a literacy rate only half that of men.

Despite the difficulties, Yemeni women are pushing ahead, many using social media techniques to press their case. One of them is an activist and blogger who calls herself “NoonArabia.” She doesn’t use her real name because she still fears retaliation.

“There is nothing in Islam that says a woman cannot work or play [a] vital role in society beyond the walls of her home,” said NoonArabia. “Fundamentalists always misuse Islam as a means to suppress women.”

Gallup poll on Yemeni women's rights after the uprising:

Yemeni men and women who want Sharia as source of new legislation:

Women 58% Men 68%

Women who believe they should have same legal rights as men:

Women 68%  Men 53%

Women and men who agree boys and girls should have equal access to education:

Women 91% Men 90%

Men and women who support women working outside the home:

Women 87% Men 59%

Source: Gallup’s After the Arab Uprising: Women on Rights, Religion, and Rebuilding
According to NoonArabia, the main things hindering women’s progress in Yemen are social customs and tribal laws, not religion. Women who march in demonstrations, she said, are taking a “huge step in breaking the taboo barrier.”

“Yemeni women have proved themselves as partners in the struggle for change,” NoonArabia said, adding that their aim is to use their activism as a step to decision-making roles at all economic and political levels.

And the expectation among Yemeni activists is that Karman, with her Nobel Peace prize and prominent role in the ongoing uprising, will be leading the way.

​“Women have to be present at all levels of the transitional government and future structures,” Karman said. “And this is what we’re fighting for. We don’t fight just for the rights of women as women, but as citizens.”

But Isobel Coleman, a Middle East scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations in (New York or Washington) advises caution when it comes to expectations about Yemen.

“This is a very traditional society,” Coleman said, adding that Yemen may have to undergo a “wholesale cultural revolution” before it deep-seated change is possible.

Yemen’s traditional resistance to change is, perhaps, most visible in Sana’a’s Taghyeer, or “Change,” square, which has been the symbolic center of the uprising since last year.

When the uprising against the Saleh government began in earnest last year and Change Square became the opposition rallying point, women were prominent in the demonstrations. They were side by side with the men as the uprising gained momentum and even slept in tents set up in the square.

Traditionalists were horrified and that’s when Saleh issued his decree that the women were behaving in an “un-Islamic” way. 

A woman takes photos of men from behind a barrier at Taghyeer (Change) Square where anti-government protesters have been camping for more than a year to demand regime change in Sanaa, April 10, 2012.A woman takes photos of men from behind a barrier at Taghyeer (Change) Square where anti-government protesters have been camping for more than a year to demand regime change in Sanaa, April 10, 2012.
x
A woman takes photos of men from behind a barrier at Taghyeer (Change) Square where anti-government protesters have been camping for more than a year to demand regime change in Sanaa, April 10, 2012.
A woman takes photos of men from behind a barrier at Taghyeer (Change) Square where anti-government protesters have been camping for more than a year to demand regime change in Sanaa, April 10, 2012.
These days, other opposition groups have taken the lead in Change Square and erected a shoulder-high wooden fence to separate the male from female demonstrators.

“Traditional gender segregation had insinuated itself into the center of the revolt from the Islamic groups who put a fence around them,” said Rahma Hugaira, president of Yemen’s Media Women, an opposition group.

She said many women demonstrators concluded they were being manipulated by political groups vying for power and decided to leave the square and give up the public demonstrations.

Complicating the political and rights struggle is Yemen’s ongoing violence. Tribal clashes continue unabated in the north of the country and the military is battling al-Qaida-linked militants in the south. In recent days, pro-Saleh factions of the military even tried to take over the Defense Ministry in Sana’a.

But Coleman of the Council on Foreign Relations said despite the violence and political upheavals, Yemen’s women have made their demands for equal rights an important issue in the nation’s political development. She said a more educated generation of women is emerging in Yemen and in neighboring nations and that demands for equality will only increase.   

And Susan Markham, director of women’s political participation at Washington’s National Democratic Institute, said Yemen is “moving in the right direction.”

Markham said Yemeni women have established what amounts to “a school of scholars” studying Islamic texts and finding ways to accommodate gender equality with Sharia religious law – a necessity if further progress is to be achieved.  

One signal of possible progress comes from Yemen’s Minister for Human Rights, Hooria Mashoor, who said the country’s National Women’s Conference has proposed adding language to a new constitution requiring a 30 percent quota for women in all state agencies.

The country is just beginning to discuss the content of a new constitution, but experts say the fact that women’s rights issues are being seriously discussed is an important step in an evolving process.

“No one can now marginalize them; and they are now moving on,” Mashoor said of Yemeni women.

“My guess,” said Coleman, “is there will be one step forward, one step back; two steps forward, one step back. But, you know, history is on the side of women.”

You May Like

Turkey: No Ransom Paid for Release of Hostages Held by IS Militants

President Erdogan hails release of hostages as diplomatic success but declines to be drawn on whether their release freed Ankara's hand to take more active stance against insurgents More

Audio Sierra Leone Ends Ebola Lockdown

Health ministry says it has reached 75 percent of its target of visiting 1.5 million homes to locate infected, educate population about virus More

US Pivot to Asia Demands Delicate Balancing Act

As tumult in Middle East distracts Obama administration, efforts to shift American focus eastward appear threatened More

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: Godwin from: Nigeria
August 21, 2012 12:55 PM
Women are their own enemy. A lot of effort is being made to bring them up the wrung of the ladder but before you know it, they tell you you've made a mistake. In Nigeria no one is asking a woman to cover herself 100% even in the hot sun, but they have chosen to do it just to prove that they are extremists. The music that women love most is the one that has harsh words and proposes harsh treatment of women, and they prove it by their action that they love suppression, so why cry for them? Even if they are granted equality with men, they'll still prefer conditions of slavish appearance to prove they are moslems. Which is why they go into extreme and severe dressing in cultures like Nigeria, USA and Europe where freedom of expression is fully guaranteed.

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Natural Gas Export Plan Divides Maryland Towni
X
Deborah Block
September 21, 2014 2:12 PM
A U.S. power company that has been importing natural gas now wants to export it. If approved, its plant in Lusby, Maryland, would likely be the first terminal on the United States East Coast to export liquefied natural gas from American pipelines. While some residents welcome the move because it will create jobs, others oppose it, saying the expansion could be a safety and environmental hazard. VOA’s Deborah Block examines the controversy.
Video

Video Natural Gas Export Plan Divides Maryland Town

A U.S. power company that has been importing natural gas now wants to export it. If approved, its plant in Lusby, Maryland, would likely be the first terminal on the United States East Coast to export liquefied natural gas from American pipelines. While some residents welcome the move because it will create jobs, others oppose it, saying the expansion could be a safety and environmental hazard. VOA’s Deborah Block examines the controversy.
Video

Video Difficult Tactical Battle Ahead Against IS Militants in Syria

The U.S. president has ordered the military to intensify its fight against the Islamic State, including in Syria. But how does the military conduct air strikes in a country that is not a U.S. ally? VOA correspondent Carla Babb reports from the Pentagon.
Video

Video Iran, World Powers Seek Progress in Nuclear Talks

Iran and the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany, known as the P5 + 1, have started a new round of talks on Iran's nuclear program. VOA State Department correspondent Pam Dockins reports that as the negotiations take place in New York, a U.S. envoy is questioning Iran's commitment to peaceful nuclear activity.
Video

Video Alibaba Shares Soar in First Day of Trading

China's biggest online retailer hit the market Friday -- with its share price soaring on the New York Stock Exchange. The shares were priced at $68, but trading stalled at the opening, as sellers held onto their shares, waiting for buyers to bid up the price. More on the world's biggest initial public offering from VOA’s Bernard Shusman in New York.
Video

Video Obama Goes to UN With Islamic State, Ebola on Agenda

President Obama goes to the United Nations General Assembly to rally nations to support a coalition against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria. He also will look for nations to back his plan to fight the Ebola virus in West Africa. As VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports, Obama’s efforts reflect new moves by the U.S. administration to take a leading role in addressing world crises.
Video

Video Migrants Caught in No-Man's Land Called Calais

The deaths of hundreds of migrants in the Mediterranean this week has only recast the spotlight on the perils of reaching Europe. And for those forunate enough to reach a place like Calais, France, only find that their problems aren't over. Lisa Bryant has the story.
Video

Video Westgate Siege Anniversary Brings Back Painful Memories

One year after it happened, the survivors of the terror attack on Nairobi's Westgate Shopping Mall still cannot shake the images of that tragic incident. For VOA, Mohammed Yusuf tells the story of victims still waiting for the answer to the question 'how could this happen?'
Video

Video Militant Assault in Syria Displaces Thousands of Kurds

A major assault by Islamic State militants on Kurds in Syria has sent a wave of new refugees to the Turkish border, where they were stopped by Turkish border security. Turkey is already hosting about 700,000 Syrian refugees who fled the civil war between the government and the opposition. But the government in Ankara has a history of strained relations with Turkey's Kurdish minority. Zlatica Hoke reports Turkey is asking for international help.
Video

Video Whaling Summit Votes to Uphold Ban on Japan Whale Hunt

The International Whaling Commission, meeting in Slovenia, has voted to uphold a court ruling banning Japan from hunting whales in the Antarctic Ocean. Conservationists hailed the ruling as a victory, but Tokyo says it will submit revised plans for a whale hunt in 2015. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video A Dinosaur Fit for Land and Water

Residents and tourists in Washington D.C. can now examine a life-size replica of an unusual dinosaur that lived almost a hundred million years ago in northern Africa. Scientists say studying the behemoth named Spinosaurus helps them better understand how some prehistoric animals adapted to life on land and in water. The Spinosaurus replica is on display at the National Geographic museum. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Iraqi Kurdistan Church Helps Christian Children Cope find shelter in churches in the Kurdish capital, Irbil

In the past six weeks, tens of thousands of Iraqi Christians have been forced to flee their homes by Islamic State militants and find shelter in churches in the Kurdish capital, Irbil. Despite U.S. airstrikes in the region, the prospect of people returning home is still very low and concerns are starting to grow over the impact this is having on the displaced youth. Sebastian Meyer reports from Irbil on how one church is coping.


Carnage and mayhem are part of daily life in northern Nigeria, the result of a terror campaign by the Islamist group Boko Haram. Fears are growing that Nigeria’s government may not know how to counter it, and may be making things worse. More

AppleAndroid